Big Sister is Watching You

by Translation Guy on May 31, 2012

The US Department of Homeland Security, the same folks that brought you full-body gropes at airport check-ins, are also feeling up social media content to spot the terrorists in our  midst.

So if your language inclines to terror terms such as “pork,” “cloud,” “team” and “Mexico” your on-line musings will earn the X-ray-like scrutiny of government spooks, if the Department of Homeland Security Media Monitory Capability Analyst’s Desktop Binder is any guide.

These seemingly innocuous terms are just a few of the hundreds of suspicious words and phrases that the Department was forced to release in a suit brought by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) under the Freedom of Information Act. In a letter to the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, EPIC described DHS’s word choice as ‘broad, vague and ambiguous.’ EPIC says that the wordlist includes ‘vast amounts of First Amendment protected speech that is entirely unrelated to the Department of Homeland Security mission to protect the public against terrorism and disasters.”

This is understandable since analysts are on the lookout for terrorists, natural disasters and “media reports that reflect adversely on DHS and response activities.” That’s a pretty broad brush when you consider all those who resent offering up their shoes at the latest airport security theater performance. (I was delighted to learn that a wheelchair-bound Henry Kissinger was a sitting duck for a TSA senior-citizen grope the other day.)

Homeland Security official told the Huffington Post that the manual ‘is a starting point, not the endgame’ in maintaining situational awareness of natural and man-made threats and denied that the government was monitoring signs of dissent.” Bad press for DHC being the exception that makes the rule, I guess.

Reuven Cohen at Forbes notes: “What wasn’t disclosed is how the agency actually gains access to the various search engines and social networks to monitor the specified keywords. My guess is the DHS has a ‘special arrangement’ with companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo and Twitter to gain secure direct API access. This type of access would allow it to use distributed cloud technologies to monitor the daily flow of social media and search activity in something close to real time.”

Cohen’s post points to the amateurish nature of the effort. Surely other government agencies have access to far more powerful tools for monitoring Web traffic than such a silly list as this. How well the State minds our language!


  1. Boom!!! There, see, I got in a word that they missed. But no doubt you’re already on their radar, so I suppose they’ve got their beady eyes on me.
    What’s that? Me not an American citizen? Me not living in the US? When did that ever deter them from a good bit of scaremongering?
    (Looking over my shoulder as I write).

  2. K says:

    This is just ridiculous. Ice, Pork, Flu? Some of these are just far to common. It’s far too unwieldy a list, I can’t see this as practical.

    • Ken says:

      You said it, K. Consider yourself monitored. No sudden movements, please.

  3. Gustavo says:

    I’m going to try and tweet this entire list in a month and see if I find any men in black following me.

  4. Rita says:

    Has anyone seen the Wire? If a bunch of uneducated inner city drug dealers that can code there communications, what makes the government think that terrorists or criminals can’t do the same if they are dumb enough to use open forums like social media as communication.

    • Ken says:

      It’s a recruitment tool for security theater extras.

  5. Rakshak Puri says:

    I find some of the words on the weather/diaser/emergency list problematic. Are they going to be wasting taxpayer dollars on tracking half of twitter every time there is a natural disaster and a corrosponding relief effort?

    • Ken says:

      Remember Katrina

  6. Astrid says:

    I think that its certainly feasible to operate a system that focuses on these words, computer algorithims these days are highly advanced and can weed out the truly unrelated and focus on those social media users that tend to post (or tweet or whatever) these words in conjunction with high regularity.

  7. Why is the DHS publishing this list? Wouldn’t it be more effective if people didn’t know the key words?

  8. Gerry says:

    What about people tweeting or posting on facebook in relation to news stories that feature these words?

    • Ken says:

      I think that’s what we’re talking about, Gerry. It’s to monitor social media.

  9. Sherrie says:

    The more important issue in all of this, isn’t a selction of seemingly random or innocuos words but the issue of how the government is gaining access to your words. While this may seem amateurish at this point, the potential for something much scarier is there.

    • Ken says:

      And just because it seems innocuous based on this FOI release, doesn’t mean it is.

  10. Karyn says:

    Once again the American government shows how complete useless and terrifying it is.

  11. Wait, Kissinger got groped by the TSA….that’s classic….LOL

    • Ken says:


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